In the run up to a performance with her new band Jensen, songwriter Georgia finds herself wrestling with her sense of self as she takes the place of the band’s original lead singer. Director Chloe Sarbib’s knack for crafting heartfelt, tender stories is on display once more in music drama Jensen. We previously spoke with Sarbib about her shorts Girl Friend and Go Tell Your Fathers, two films which see characters confronting turbulent emotional times and Jensen is another tale in similar territory. What’s impressive, however, about Sarbib’s direction across these films is how she adapts her approach stylistically to the story she’s telling. In Jensen, she does this through a series of deliberate compositions that reflect her protagonist Georgia’s fractured headspace inside the confined walls of the dressing room she’s preparing in. DN is delighted to premiere Jensen alongside a deep dive interview into its making with Sarbib where we discuss everything from its brisk production through to the challenge of recording live music for film.

From speaking with you in the past, it’s often the case that your stories are born out of something personal to yourself. Was that the case for Jensen?

As is the case for many stories, this one’s genesis lies in something that really happened. When I was 22, days after graduating from college, my brilliant best friend died; I was feeling adrift already, unsure who I would become, and my sadness, along with my sense of responsibility to both care for others close to her and tend to her legacy, quickly became the most meaningful things in my life. For a while, I lost track of who I was.

I believe that great stories grow out of the power of truth combined with the distance of structure.

That experience I had, of young loss, felt like it contained a timeless parable about grief, selfhood, comparison and jealousy. Years later, when I started working on a feature script that captured some of those feelings, I decided to set that parable in the world of music. I love music, I was in a band in college, and have always wanted to make a movie about musicians. Plus, it’s such a cinematic way to give access to a character’s internal state. That feature, which is called Her Tender Eyes and which I’m gearing up to make soon, has an unusual structure: the first act is one day, the second act is one year, and the third act… well, I won’t spoil it. It doesn’t recount what happened to me. But I believe that great stories grow out of the power of truth combined with the distance of structure, and I hope this one has both.

Were you looking to make a short in similar territory then?

I didn’t initially plan to make a short in this world with these characters. For my Columbia thesis film, I’d gotten a grant for another short called Calvados, which I intended to shoot in France. But for various reasons outside my control, that movie fell apart by October 2019, and I had to use the money by February or I’d lose it, so I had to come up with a new idea. I was at a residency called Catwalk and I dove back into these characters with the help of my Co-Writer Gina Hackett, who helped me get unblocked in finding a short-form way in; I condensed a version of the story into a single evening leading up to a gig.

What are the core thematic questions for you at the heart of Jensen?

Jensen asks, what if you could have everything you envied in someone, could take their place? Could you enjoy it, or would it never really feel like it belonged to you? It’s about the difficulty of believing in yourself when you’re offered the chance to be someone shinier, about the often thin line between deep love and wicked envy, and about feeling pressure to fill the hole left behind by someone missing.

How was it getting everything off the ground? Was it tricky obtaining the central location of the concert venue?

The movie had to come together very quickly given that I only wrote the script in October and we shot end of January/early February, but I believed I could do it because of my strong New York community, I’ve shot almost every movie I’ve ever made here. I called on all parts of my life in this city to get this movie made and they delivered. But it was a sprint.

Producer Waleed Alqahtani was my partner in all things and helped us find the perfect locations. We shot at the Knitting Factory, which sadly shut down in the wake of COVID. For the green room, we rented a studio and then shot in its actual green room rather than the studio. Production Designer Maryam Khosravi totally redesigned that space, painted all the walls to fit our vision in the few days before we shot, and then painted them back after we’d finished. Gina helped me find so many of our collaborators: our stellar DP Ines Gowland, who also shot her excellent 16mm short Beauty Marks; the brilliant Sarah Deaver, who was the perfect actor-musician for the role and carries the movie, and the wonderful Sebastian Pilley, both of whom had been in shorts of Gina’s.

I had worked with the amazing Henny Russell before on a short called No Matter What, part of an omnibus feature called Brooklyn Love Stories, and wrote the makeup artist role with her in mind. Ellis Ludwig-Leone of San Fermin generously agreed to let us use his song Saints as the central one for the film. San Fermin’s Lead Singer Claire Wellin plays Nina. Caitlin Doukas, our excellent costume designer whose talents have graced much bigger projects than this, had worked on Go Tell Your Fathers with me; her expert eye found the sequinned green dress that becomes a central element of the short. And Tara Carrara, who I’d worked with on an indie episodic project called Table Talk, created an iconic makeup look to complete Georgia’s transformation.

Did you shoot the scenes with Nina before or after the main bulk of the shoot? And what did you shoot on?

Ahead of our shoot, we did a photoshoot to create the poster for the band that appears in the movie and also did a little iPhone pre-shoot for the stuff with Nina. Principal photography shot over four days in early February 2020, in what we didn’t know were some of the last normal weeks in New York before the pandemic. Our camera was an Alexa Mini and we used Cooke S4 lenses. After all the wildness of prep, the shoot was actually one of the smoother I’ve been on, possibly because we scheduled ourselves enough time, for once. I credit Waleed and the production team with letting me really focus on directing and not have to have half my producer brain on. A favorite moment of the shoot was stumbling on UPM Rtusha Kulkarni grinding coffee beans by hand for our crew, dedication!

I called on all parts of my life in this city to get this movie made and they delivered.

There’s a difference in how you shot this too compared to your previous shorts, there’s a real sense of deliberation in the framing of these characters.

In previous shorts, I had played with a looser, fluid, spontaneous-feeling camera. This time, I wanted to create specific, deliberate rules and play with a less invisible, more muscular directing style that would create specific progression in our understanding of the character’s mental state. For instance, because this is a story about identity and self-examination, I withheld a seemingly-obligatory shot in a dressing room scene, the mirror shot, until the moment when the character actually looks at herself. This serves, I hope, both to enhance the power of that moment and to keep the long chunk of the script that we spend in the small dressing room varied and interesting.

How did you tackle the music side of production?

Another joy of this short was recording the music live. It was important to me that that aspect of the movie feel grounded and real, that it would feel believable even to a musician. Ellis generously shared the stems of Saints so we could use them in the soundcheck scene. I developed the acoustic version of the song with Sarah and roped in my boyfriend Jorn Swart, who’s a pianist and composer, to help us figure out how best to record the one-take moment of her performance as well as the moments on stage.

I wanted to create specific, deliberate rules and play with a less invisible, more muscular directing style.

You mentioned that you shot this right before the pandemic hit, how did that affect post-production?

Initially, because we shot so late, I was only going to have six weeks to deliver this movie for Columbia graduation. I edited a version myself but I wasn’t happy with it, it felt wooden, and I knew I wanted another set of eyes. Then COVID hit. Everything shut down, I put the movie away for a while. After the chaos of the pandemic spring and summer, I came back to it in the fall of 2020 and brought on wizard Mauricio Rivera Hoffmann to do an editing pass. He breathed totally new life into the film and cut against the directing in ways that were so exciting to me and helped me get back into the story. I had my friend Richard Miron, a great doc filmmaker and editor, take a look as well, and we locked picture in the first quarter of 2021. In that way, the pandemic was actually a gift to this movie, it would have been a worse film had the post process been more rushed.

We were fortunate enough to get Kath Raisch at Company 3, who went on to color Aftersun, do our gorgeous grade, with just enough grain that you barely feel it. And Riccardo Belletti, who was a student at Berklee at the time, did a great job with our sound, recorded by Max Arias.

You premiered in person at Aspen Shortsfest, what was that like?

The film had a dream premiere at Aspen Shortsfest 2022, the first in-person edition of the festival since COVID-19. Gina and I attended and met so many incredible filmmakers and new friends, and just had a swell time. Can’t recommend that festival enough. I was also thrilled when the film won the Jury Award in the Women’s Category – East at the DGA Student Film Awards.

And last but not least, what are working on at present?

Now, I’m working on the feature version of this story, called Her Tender Eyes. Of course, a feature can explore so many more tones and moments and nuances than a 14-minute film can, the strangeness of Georgia’s relationship with Alden is only hinted at in the short but gets a lot more airtime in the feature. My hope is to cast musicians in crossover roles and release an album along with the film. Stay tuned!

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